January 2014 Newsletter

Jan 21, 2014


It’s now officially time to be optimistic. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant traffic hit a five-month high in November, even before the busy holiday season, and the Current Situation Index (which measures trends in in traffic, same-store sales, labor and capital expenditures) hit its highest level in six months. That’s our story, anyway, and we’re stickin’ to it.

To celebrate the New Year, we join the growing legion of trend prognosticators with our own annual predictions for what’s the hotness in 2014, including all kinds of interesting things that are happening around protein, from chicken to Paleo diets to the urban barbecue phenomenon.
One area that continues to outperform all others is fast-casual, and in this month’s newsletter we also take a look at how such FC niche signifiers as customizable menu formats and upgraded ingredients are rapidly spreading into the world of pizza.

And senior operations associate Mark Ladisky shares three vital tactics for making your new restaurant opening successful-seeing as how everyone’s feeling so optimistic.

To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas

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Pizza’s New Era

By Joan Lang

It had to happen. Sandwiches have been upgraded, burgers have gone upscale, and now pizza is being reinvented in the uber-hot fast-casual vein, with better toppings, sleeker décor, fancier amenities—and lightning-fast cook times thanks to oven technologies both new and old.

If there were any doubt, check in on the new Pizzeria Locale concept being developed in partnership between restaurateurs Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and—you guessed it—Chipotle. With its mix-and-match menu of contemporary-style thin-crust Neapolitan pizzas, glass-enclosed prep kitchen and $7 price point, Pizzeria Locale aims to do for pizza what Chipotle did for tacos all these years ago. And they’re doing it in about two minutes flat.
They’re not the only ones.

Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman was early to the party with 800 Degrees, which promises “a 250-year-old classic in 60 seconds or less” via the eponymous custom-built wood-fired stone-hearth ovens. The menu features four classic (including Margherita, of course) and 15 specialty pies (e.g., the sauceless Tartufo, featuring mushrooms, arugula, roasted garlic and truffled cheese), plus a create-your-own option with more than 40 a la carte proteins, cheeses and vegetable toppings). Small bites and salads—including four made with the cult-favorite burrata cheese—round out the bill of fare, along with tap wine and beer.


The self-service line is set up Subway-style, with a complete assembly line of mise en place; by the time a guest moves through the line, the pizza is cooked and can be taken to the table. The nascent chain, based in Los Angeles, is poised to open five units in New York City—where Umami Burger has already created a controversial sensation, and the local citizenry are fiercely loyal to their $1 fold-and-eat slices.
Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza (“Custom-Built Artisanal Pizzas”) calls it like it is—the company reports that 120 seconds and a “dedicated pizzasmith” are all it takes to satisfy the inner pizza artisan in all its guests, with dozens of choices of sauces and toppings. Online ordering means that the process is even “freakishly faster.” The concept was developed by Wetzel’s Pretzels founders Rick and Elise Wetzel, and a recent franchise agreement with Millennial Restaurant Group (a partnership between Rally’s founder Jim Patterson and franchise veteran Ulysses Bridgeman) hints that expansion will be speedy, too.
In fact, some of the most exciting potential developments in the fast-casual pizzeria niche are longstanding industry heavyweights. California Pizza Kitchen co-founders Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield are said to be developing their own mall-based version (just as CPK itself opens a new prototype).


Buffalo Wild Wings is the muscle and bucks behind PizzaRev (“Craft Your Own”), with its robust celebrity PR and social media profile as befits its Los Angeles-area roots. An easy-to-comprehend single menu price of $7.99 gets you either a DIY pie with unlimited toppings choices, or one of eight “Our Way” pizzas such as Margherita or White Mushroom; there’s also a $5.99 one-cheese option.


Matt Andrew, a co-founder of Moe’s Southwest Grill, spent more than two years developing the menu and business plan for Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint (“The Original Create Your Own Pizza Joint”). The five-year-old company is now in rapid franchise mode, with more than 150 units in 10 states and D.C., on the strength of its customizable pizza format. Guests choose among three different doughs (including gluten-free), six sauces, and more than 45 toppings; there are also signature pies along the lines of BBQ Chicken and Portabella Pesto for those who are leery of decision-making. And the company is also testing breakfast pizzas.
Uncle Maddio’s differs from some of its competition in that it aggressively targets families, not only with the entertainment of DIY pizzas made in full view, but also Art Camp, Kids’ Day on Saturdays, and active marketing of birthday parties, complete with appearances by “Chef Cou Cou.”


And then there’s three-year-old Pie Five Pizza Co., one of four concepts in the buffet-style Pizza Inn empire, which bills itself as “the first interactive pizza experience.” P5 touts over a million possible combinations, and has a particularly healthy program of LTOs which include seasonal favorites like Hatch Chili Pie; there are also a number of salads and three kinds of signature Cookie Pie desserts. A “Circle of Crust” loyalty program awards free pies and a half-birthday pizza-delivery amenity (yes, you read that right: half-birthday), as well as participation in double-points and other promotions.


For help developing your pizza concept—or any other restaurant idea—contact Synergy Restaurant Consultants.


Top 10 Trends for 2014

By Joan Lang
Here are our best guesses for some of the things we’ll be seeing more of in the coming year.

1. Poultry Takes Flight

With protein prices on the rise and chefs looking for something a bit different than burgers, short ribs, and pork and more pork, the pendulum is swinging toward chicken and other poultry. According to Food Genius, chicken is the most-featured protein in the super-hot sandwich and wrap category, at 83% and 80%, respectively. Examples include items like the Southwestern Baja Flatbread at KFC’s new eleven sister concept, and the Fried Chicken Sandwich with fried green tomatoes at Canele in Los Angeles. And in upscale restaurants, luxury chicken like Amish or Jidori varieties are showing up in dramatic preparations for two or more to share, such as the Chicken Under a Brick on the menu at Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York City.

2. DYI Customization

The Holy Grail of menu concepts today, especially in the booming fast-casual market? Mix-and-match options that allow guests the ultimate flexibility to design their own meal—and then do it again another way the next time.

Consider these relatively lesser-known brands from’s 2013 list of “movers and shakers”:
Freakin’ Unbelievable Burgers – The BYOB (Build Your Burger) menu includes 6 “patty” options and more than 44 different free and premium toppings
Freebirds World Burrito – Standing up for “freedom” of choice where guests can design their own tacos, burritos, nachos and salads with different sizes, shells, formats, proteins and “freebie” toppings
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill – Build Your Own Entrée concepts feature three platforms (pita, laffa or plate) and six proteins (including falafel, hummus and portabella mushrooms) with fresh veggies and sauces
Giardino Gourmet Salads – My Way salads offer six different greens, 35 fruits and vegetables, and enough nuts, seeds, cheeses, crouton options and dressings to last a lifetime,

3. Gluten Free = Healthy

Every few years the definition of what’s healthy on the menu changes a bit, from low-calorie to trans-fat-free and everything in between. This time around, the public pulse seems to be beating for gluten-free menu items—not just because of the number of diagnosed “celiacs,” but because so many Americans seem to be eschewing gluten. According to the NPD Group, in fact, as much as one-third of American consumers reports a desire to cut down on gluten, which has led to a tremendous increase in the number of gluten-free products in the marketplace. GrillIt, a “fresh authentic grill” chain based in Florida, exemplifies the trend, with a menu that boasts of being 90% gluten-free via options like grilled chicken, steak, shrimp, pasta and salads in the all-important mix-and-match format.

4. Modern Mashups

Forget about fusion food. This is a new generation of highly trained, multi-culti chefs who are combining ingredients, flavors and menu specialties in fun new ways that really resonate with today’s adventure-seeking diners. There’s hard-boiled eggs, feta and spicy tomato jam baked into bacon waffles at Waffle & Wolf, in Brooklyn. Spicy Tuna Nachos at Jogasaki Sushi Burrito, the L.A. area. And at Del Seoul in Chicago, sibling owners Pete and Irene Jeon have combined international street food traditions to create a menu of Korean BBQ tacos, kimchee French fries and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches with fillings like soy-sochu marinated ribeye steak.


Jogasaki Truck/Spicy Salmon Sushi Burrito | Photo Credit: License CC by 2.0 Copyright Flickr User punctuated
Jogasaki Truck/Spicy Salmon Sushi Burrito | Photo Credit: License CC by 2.0 Copyright Flickr User punctuated

5. Vegetable-Centric

We wrote about vegetable-forward menus in the February 2013 issue of this newsletter, and since then the trend has grown even more. In fact, among more than 100 operators surveyed by, vegetable dishes ranked No. 2 on the list of most popular food trends of the year, second only to healthy options. Many chefs are realizing that a steak’s a steak, but it takes creativity to work with vegetables, and it’s also easier to support a seasonal menu concept when you rely heavily on produce. At Martha, a new American comfort food spot in Brooklyn, N.Y., with many Asian touches, the winter menu includes such vegetable-based specialties as Cauliflower Gratin, butternut squash with miso butter and almonds, Thai eggplant with fish sauce and hard-boiled egg, and arugula salad with watermelon radish and fried wontons. Even McAllister’s Deli is taking the plunge, with a new lower-calorie menu program that emphasizes its Fire Roasted Vegetable Soup.

6. Me Caveman, the Diet

By the same token, protein has never been more in favor, and the diet du jour seems to be the Paleo or “caveman” regimen which emphasizes high-quality protein, vegetables, nuts and seeds, but eschews grains (read: gluten), legumes, dairy and processed foods. Many restaurant chefs, looking to lose weight and boost energy, have embraced the primal lifestyle, and there is even a Paleo Chef service that provides meals, recommendations, recipes and consulting services to would-be practitioners. Corner Table, which claims to be the first paleo restaurant in Houston, features a number of dishes that fit the diet, including paella made with grated cauliflower rice, and a Yaya’s Salad with kale, mixed greens, sweet potato, ginger, almonds, sesame seeds, cinnamon and pumpkin seeds in a ginger-mustard vinaigrette.

7. “Conscious” Choices

Speaking of protein, the world is evolving in the direction of choices that are viewed as responsible from the point of view of consumers, the planet and the animals themselves. And this is shaking out to mean sustainable seafood, grass-fed meats, pastured pork and antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken, as well as such vegetarian options as eggs, quinoa and other grains, soy, and beans. According to a recent report from Packaged Facts and CCD Innovation, it’s not just about natural food stores and high-end restaurants anymore, either. The norms for buying and eating food have changed for good within a broad cross-section of the American population, and today’s consumers are looking for everyday ways of eating that address several key issues, including:

• Local food supplies
• Meatless meals
• Humanely raised meat
• Sustainable seafood choices, either wild or farmed

8. Next Wave Beverage Pairings

Suggested wine pairings are certainly a great guest service/sales builder, but consumer interest in craft beers, cocktails and even specialty teas are such that there are many more pairing areas to explore. Apartment 13, in New York City, goes all out with its beverage program, offers wines, beers, spirits, cocktails and more that are organized by flavor profile. Cocktails share ingredients with food recipes, such as herbs, spices and fruits, as well as infusions and syrups created in collaboration with the kitchen—the better to facilitate “synchronicity” between the cocktail and food menus.

9. The South Rises Again

The ever-popular taste for regional American food seems to be centering on the South—more than a generation after the Cajun blackened fish craze of the 1980s. This iteration, however, has a more artisanal flavor under the wing of chefs with serious training. Bo’s Kitchen & Bar Room, in New York City, hits the trend with a country ham plate with biscuits and cara-cara marmalade; Crispy Alligator with chili aioli; Spiced Louisiana Redfish;: Buttermilk Braised Fried Chicken; and Catdaddy’s Moonshine behind the bar. Carriage House, in Chicago, does it up Charleston-style with She Crab Soup, Lowcountry Oyster Roast, Shrimp & Grits, and Country Fried Sweetbreads with red pea & okra succotash.

10. Urban ‘Cue

With no indigenous bbq style of their own, operators in big Northern towns like Chicago and New York can adapt any kind of ‘cue style with impunity—and that often means mixing it up with the likes of Texas brisket and Memphis ribs on the same menu. These new high-concept honky tonks also feature upgraded beverage service and other niceties, such as appetizers and salads. For example, there’s Dinosaur BBQ, with locations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and a menu that includes everything from pork shoulder and St. Louis ribs to sausage and apple-brined chicken, plus catfish, skirt steak and even breakfast all day (smoked brisket and poblano hash). And SlowBones Modern Barbecue, in Burlington, MA, is making its own traditions with six different kinds of meat and eight sauces (you’d never see Cucumber Dill in a real rib shack, but what the heck), served with a choice of such new-school sides as Maple Smacked Quinoa.

Interested in more trends, food and otherwise? Check out these from Facts, Figures & The Future, Campbell’s Culinary & Baking Institute, Zagat Survey, Technomic, Fast Casual, and the CIA Worlds of Flavor Conference.

Three Keys to a Successful Restaurant Opening

By Mark Ladisky, Senior Operations Associate

Photo Credit: License CC by 2.0 Copyright Flickr User tribalicious
Photo Credit: License CC by 2.0 Copyright Flickr User tribalicious


We have orchestrated and participated in our share of openings, and in other cases we have been background support providing one specific role while others have directed the actual opening. In both cases there are some common preparations one should take when planning for a successful opening.

First, Plan it Out… Up to and Including Plan J.  We all like to think that our projects will happen on our timeline and in the order that we have set forth, but the reality of an opening is that we can’t control every variable that happens. The best we can do is sit down with a calendar and map out the best plan of action, with timelines and objectives, and be sure that when Plan A doesn’t work out as planned, that we have a Plan B and Plan C designed in advance—before the project starts—and maybe even up to a Plan J for Just-In-Case because… you never know.

If you experience challenges during the opening process and are not prepared with a good plan, then the results could include the costly waste of labor if staff is hired too soon or must be hastily trained, a waste of ordered food if the opening or occupancy is delayed, or the misfiring of press and marketing events. No matter how much you may dislike making a plan, you will regret not making one even more.

Next, Make a List for Everything. Even the most successful openings can be a very kinetic experience, with unconventional schedules and a lot to keep track of in your head. Keeping detailed lists in a project planner or even a legal pad will keep the small things from falling through the big cracks.

It’s not always everyone’s strength to be hyper-organized or to have a photographic memory, so have a set of categories worked out on something as simple as Excel tabs and make a daily practice of planning out the next day and “checking off boxes,” as we like to say.

Be sure that when you are working out your lists that you have a clear understanding of each course of events that you need to follow to avoid dead-ends on projects and goals. The time to determine your liquor pars is not when the salesperson walks in but before, and based on math and not rushed meetings. You need multiple planning sessions with all stakeholders in order to create workable opening timelines and strategies for a great opening.

Lastly, Trust but Validate. Just as keeping a list will help maintain your organization, delegating and validating will aid in your overall sanity, allowing you to focus on the big picture and trust in others rather than trying to micromanage all the details.

If you haven’t learned it by now, an opening will remind you that you can’t be everywhere and focused on everything at once. You should in the course of managing any project, but particularly during an opening: Plan to have others involved to help you reach your goals and deadlines.  Be sure that dates and goals are always shared and agreed-upon among the team, and that you check to be sure everything is on track and on time—without having to focus on all the little details of how it got done.

Being able to trust in any project starts with the human element, and whether it’s our team or yours it is critical that you have the right people around you for a successful restaurant opening. Take the time to ask the right questions of the people joining your efforts, and you will be able to reach your goals more readily and most of all happily.

Our team of restaurant experts can be involved with every element of your project from concept to design, menu and recipe creation to hiring and training and everything in between. Contact Synergy Consultants today to see how we can support you in your exciting new restaurant opening.


Tip of the Month

Each year, December marks the release of one of the most influential “hot new trends” predictions of the season: The National Restaurant Association’s annual “What’s Hot” survey, conducted in collaboration with the American Culinary Federation. Fast Casual has posted a particularly useful article about this year’s survey, which also contains links to the full report, as well as last year’s analysis. Have a look.